It was Saturday, 18th October at 2.50am, in the Queen Alexandra British Military Hospital on Alexandra Road in Singapore, during a tropical thunderstorm that caused the lights to cut out. Mum remembers it well - arriving in an Army jeep that rattled its way to the hospital driven by a barefoot Malayan about 11pm. I arrived on the top floor, overlooking the morgue. Mum and Dad by then were living in Johore Bahru so not too far to drive. Dad went home and promptly went to bed and when the hospital tried calling him about 6am there was no answer, which was rather worrying in those days as the Bukit Tima road wasn’t a safe place to be. A friend who was staying with them called Mo had to go and wake him up. Next day, Dad brought Mum a can of peaches (but no tin opener) and some rice pudding which he, in his practical way thought she would appreciate, but all the other new fathers brought flowers. Poor Mum.
And only a couple of months earlier, in August, Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of an independent India following the partition of Pakistan and India. The Labour Government granted them independence, obliging King George VI to relinquish his title of Emperor of India. It also granted independence to Burma and Ceylon in 1948, and gave up Britain’s Palestinian Mandate leading to the establishment of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli War. George VI reigned but all was definitely not well with the world and the British Empire was beginning to crumble.
The King and Queen at Sandringham in 1947
Only two years before my birthday, in 1945, President Harry S. Truman had decided to drop ‘the bomb’ in Japan to end the Pacific war quickly without the loss of further American lives. The first was dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August, and the second on Nagasaki three days later. On 14th August Japan announced its surrender. On the 8th August the USSR had declared war on Japan – nice timing.
Political changes were matched by cultural changes. In 1947 Jackson Pollock dropped Abstract Expressionism on the art world with Full Fathom Five and his action-painting technique, where paint was dripped onto vast canvases laid on the floor. This was to be a great influence on my own artistic endeavours in the Art Room at Tiffin School.
Princess Elizabeth, as she was then, married Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947 and a year later gave birth to Charles. In 1950 she gave birth to their daughter Anne, beating my Mum and Dad to it by two years.
But wartime regulations remained in the UK and food-rationing in 1946/1947 was more restrictive than during the war. So my Ma and Pa were probably most grateful to be serving His Majesty in Malaya. That’s how my Mum got a can of peaches and rice pudding in hospital. God save the King!
The start of 1947 had seen the most severe winter in Britain for 53 years – heavy snow and much flooding. So my Mum and Dad were doubly grateful to be in Malaya. Along with the cold weather, the Cold War was starting up nicely. At the end of the War in 1945 Germany had been divided into zones occupied and controlled by the USSR, United States, United Kingdom and France. Meanwhile, the USSR was converting all of eastern Europe into a Soviet controlled ‘bloc’.
To put my arrival further into context, only four days before my birth on 14th October 1947, an American test pilot called Chuck Yeager was the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound. A United States Air Force officer during the War, he became a test pilot and flight instructor. Chuck flew the Bell X-1 aircraft at a speed of 1,065 km/h (662 mph), breaking the sound barrier. A few years later my mother’s sister, Auntie Pam, was to marry a USAF officer called Tom Yeager but he was no relation. Perhaps she thought Tom was Chuck? Tom, like Chuck, was certainly a fast mover but so were most American servicemen at the time as far as young British girls were concerned.
My Dad, under the title of Lieutenant AT Layzell, had to travel out to Malaya on his own and was ordered to report on 6th Feb for embarkation on SS Arundel Castle at New Docks, Southampton, bound for Singapore. His orders advised him to parade in “Dress:- Full Marching Order (Battledress, Web Equipment, etc.)”. Those were the days! So my Mum had to follow him out, about 3 or 4 months pregnant, sailing for Singapore on 5th May aboard the British India Steam Navigation Company’s liner SS Dunera - 11,162 tons gross (the ship, that is), built in 1937 and kept going until 1967. She met a ‘shipmate’ on the way to Southampton, Louise, who lives near Portsmouth and who she’s still in contact with.
What exactly brought my parents to Malaya? Well, I think it was an opportunity for a foreign posting that was too good to miss. Mum and Dad met at work in York. After the war Dad was working with the War Office, or Ministry of Defence, and had been posted to York in an office based in an old house. Mum, who had been in the women’s ATS (Auxiliary Transport Service) was working there as well. Although she’d been going out with a local boy (Reg the bomber pilot) she ditched him for blue-eyed Albert.
When Mum and Dad arrived in Singapore, they stayed in ‘The Floraville’ Guest House not far from the hospital, run by a pock-nosed Dutchman known as ‘Van Fleet’ but probably van Vliedt who kept a gaggle of geese as guards. Staple diet for residents was boiled fish with sweet chilly sauce. Mum said he didn’t give you time to get out of bed when the first of the month arrived, the ranch doors were flung open and his voice bellowed RENT! He wasn’t very nice and so they were pleased when they moved to Johore Bahru on the mainland just across the causeway from the island of Singapore. I’m not sure how but my Mum and Dad were offered rented accommodation in one of the Sultan of Johore’s spare houses at number 27Jalan Abdul Samad. The Straits Times of 1938 reported the newly-built house as being ‘of the Spanish style’. A good start for the architect to be.
I was christened by the Reverend Food there in the back garden, as my parents considered it too dangerous in those days (because of terrorist activity) to venture out to the church. I was baptised with holy water from Palestine, in a small clay phial given to my Mum by the NAAFFI Manager’s wife; she shared a cabin with Mum on the way out to Singapore aboard the SS Dunera. The water was put into a silver rimmed cut-glass fruit bowl and there was cake and champagne which, I am told, I didn’t like at all and funnily enough has never really agreed with me since.